The Judicial Council on Wednesday ordered all California courthouses closed once a month starting Sept. 16, despite ongoing complaints from labor groups, sheriffs and some judges that the closures are unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
"I hate it," said council member Richard Huffman, a justice on the 4th District Court of Appeal. But, he added, "We believe it is the only rational mechanism available to us to minimize the impact to the public."
The third-Wednesday-each-month closures will save an estimated $85.3 million and are a key part of the judicial branch's overall plan to cut spending, raise fees and siphon savings to close a $393 million deficit. The Legislature authorized the closures as part of the $26 billion budget revision signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday.
Los Angeles and Mendocino superior courts already started their monthly closures on July 15, after leaders there said they could not wait for state judicial leaders to act. Orange County Superior Court will start closures on Aug. 19. In San Francisco, court leaders who had originally planned to start closures in August now say they will align with the rest of the state and close courthouses starting Sept. 16.
The alternatives to closing courthouses, council members said, are laying off large numbers of employees and gutting programs.
"What we have to do is take a long-term view of access to justice and avoid steps that in the long term could be even more devastating than anything being considered by us now in regards to court closures," said Chief Justice Ronald George.
Sheriffs continue to argue, however, that they can't afford to cut their court security contracts with the courts by the legislatively mandated 4.62 percent. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Wayne Bilowit told the council that such a cutback would cost his department $13 million, leading to reductions in patrols and the potential release of thousands of jailed inmates.
Court employee groups, too, say the closures will only increase their workloads on the days courthouses remain open. And they continue to question whether judicial leaders have fully tapped other sources of money, such as savings set aside for a new case management system.
"The employees believe there are misplaced priorities," said Arnella Sims, a Los Angeles County Superior Court reporter.
Some judges are also balking at the closures, arguing -- mostly behind the scenes -- that their courts have stashed away enough money through cutbacks or savings to avoid shutting courthouse doors to the public. San Mateo County Superior Court judges, for instance, sent a letter to branch leaders last month asking to be exempt from any closure order.
But Mary Roberts, general counsel to the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the Legislature left no wiggle room in authorizing the closures. "It truly is all or nothing," she said. "It is system-wide, at every level."
Individual courts will be left to decide whether their employees are furloughed without pay on closure days or continue to work, albeit behind closed doors.
Even with the closures, the trial courts will lose a combined $190 million in funding for the 2009-10 fiscal year. The AOC will drain much of its reserves and tap money set aside for computer projects and courthouse construction to ameliorate other cuts and to offset cost overruns in courthouse security, appointed dependency counsel and interpreter programs.
Those savings won't be available next year, when the state's budget problems could be just as bad, said AOC Finance Director Stephen Nash.